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Where We Call Home

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By Steven A. Smith

I was in Bend, Oregon, recently visiting my dearest friends who are going through a rough patch in terms of health.

The night before I was to leave, I called my wife, Carla, to update my schedule.

“I’m coming home,” I told her.

There was a brief pause on the line. Something in my tone, or possibly in the emphasis I put on the word “home,” caught her attention.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say ‘home’ like that,” she said.

And she was right.

On the long, hot drive back to Spokane, I began to think about home and what that term means, especially to someone who has had so many homes over so many years.

As an editor in Wichita, Kansas, I had the chance to work with sociologists who were studying the ways journalists could better relate to news consumers. Among other insights, they determined that journalists needed to better understand how their readers defined home and how the newspaper could better reflect feelings of home in news coverage.

One of their observations was amazingly simple and, in retrospect, should have been obvious.

When people meet someone new, the first questions, invariably, is “where do you live,” meaning “where is home?”

We found people were not always prepared to tell strangers Wichita was home, perhaps because they feared people would judge them in some negative way. Wichita is a cow town and the stockyards smell. Or it is flat and dusty. Or it is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. Or too conservative? Or just too much of something others might not appreciate.

If you asked someone from Wichita where they called home, they might more readily say “Kansas” or even “the Midwest.” Or they might say they “I live in Wichita, but home is San Francisco (or Miami or Minneapolis or Dubuque or somewhere else, generally where they were born).

That observation helped our newspaper find ways to better reflect the authentic life of Wichita residents, focusing a bit more often on the positives than had been routine. People who could call Wichita home were more likely to become newspaper readers. Simple. And good business.

I had gone through a similar process before acknowledging that my home for the five years I lived there was Wichita, Kansas. I knew something had changed when I readily responded to the “where do you live” question with the answer “Wichita” and some accompanying phrase, such as “it is a wonderful place to raise kids,” or “the Kansas plains have their own kind of beauty.”

My newspaper career took me to nine newspapers in eight cities. And with each move came a moment when I realized my new home, my real home, was the new place.

It happened in Florida when coming back from a trip I looked out the airplane window as we were landing in Ft. Lauderdale and realized I was coming home. It happened in St. Paul, Minnesota, when I found myself shoveling a heavy winter snow and really enjoying the look of a house with clean walks. And it happened in Colorado Springs one evening when I sat on our back deck and watched the sun set over Pikes Peak. Simple. Home.

I have been in Spokane for longer than I have ever lived anywhere outside of my hometown in Oregon. And yet I have held back in calling Spokane home. My wife is a native and I tell folks I am here because of her. “Where is home,” I will be asked. “I live in Spokane but I’m from Eugene.”

There are lots of reasons for my reluctance to acknowledge this place. The editor of the local newspaper can never be popular in any city. Given some of the issues we dealt with in my time at The Spokesman-Review I was not always a welcome guest. An editor rarely sees the best in a city.

It is also true that an editor is rarely popular in their own newsroom. It is a hard job requiring tough decisions. And I sometimes made it tougher on everyone with lapses in judgment, petty battles with bosses, colleagues and subordinates, and strategic mistakes. There were lots of staffers who were sorry I ever came and others who were happy when I left. Much of that is on me.

Taken together, it was difficult for me to ever see Spokane as a welcoming home.

For the last several years it has been home because my home is where my Carla wants to be and being with Carla compensates for a great deal of other discomforts.

Until that night before I left Bend. She was right. Something has changed.

“I am coming home,” I said. And I meant it.

Spokane is my home now. I like it here. It is a fine city with fine people who lead good lives in companionable neighborhoods. There are exceptions, of course. But this is a manageable city with manageable problems. Its quirks now seem more endearing than unsettling. Occasional aggravation has replaced occasional anger.

I would return to my original home in Eugene given the chance because humans are like salmon – we will swim upstream to reach our birthplace given the chance. But short of that, when anyone asks now, the answer will come far more easily.

“I live in Spokane. It’s a nice place. You should visit.”

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About Steven A Smith

Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020.

Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms with a staff ranging from more than 140 in 2002 to 104 at the time of his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at The Statesman Journal, a Gannett newspaper in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette, a Freedom Communications newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an MA in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a BS in journalism from the University of Oregon.

Smith serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board.

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